Howard Schultz didn’t have to say a word. The simple act of brandishing a red Starbucks cup before the overflow crowd at McCaw Hall set the entire auditorium whooping and laughing and cheering.
“Is that crazy?” the Starbucks CEO asked the audience as the mirth died. “It’s just a red cup!”
Stock owners had lined up outside the concert hall that morning in March 2016 to snag a seat at the annual shareholders meeting, where Schultz recapped the company’s growth, in between inspirational videos, a Chinese dance performance by employees from Chengdu, and a surprise piano set by Alicia Keys.
The CEO sauntered back and forth across the stage in his sober suit-and-tie combo while describing a banner fiscal year: 500 new stores in China, 54 percent stock growth, even a record Christmas quarter—despite one of the more unanticipated controversies to unfold around the Seattle company that’s become equal parts coffee purveyor and cultural touchstone.
A quick recap for anyone who uses the Internet solely to watch puppy videos or consume news of substance: The most recent version of Starbucks’ annual holiday cup stripped away the usual images of snowmen or carolers in favor of a red ombre motif. No Christmas tree. Not even a lousy snowflake. The minimalist design team at Apple probably approved, but a guy named Joshua Feuerstein didn’t.
Within days of the cup hitting stores, the self-styled Internet evangelist from Arizona released a viral rant calling for “great Americans and Christians” to give their name as “Merry Christmas” when placing an order, thus forcing baristas to acknowledge, at least in black Sharpie, Christ’s name on the cups. His suggested hashtag: #MerryChristmasStarbucks.
Suddenly that seemingly unassuming totem of eggnog lattes and peppermint mochas ordered against a backdrop of Josh Groban holiday tunes became a symbol of the perceived cultural war against Christianity. At a rally in Illinois, Donald Trump wondered aloud if we all shouldn’t boycott the coffee company. Next came a backlash to the backlash, complete with its own #ItsJustaCup hashtag.
Back in McCaw Hall, a jovial Schultz told his audience: “Every now and then, something happens with the relevancy of the brand that surprises us. The real question, which I can’t answer today, is: What color is the cup going to be next Christmas? You’ll have to wait for that.”
Right after Halloween this year, Starbucks seized on the anticipation with a bit of a fake-out—a green cup with a unity-themed illustration. That same week a leaked photo of yet-to-come red cups went viral on Reddit, prompting fans and foes to interpret the wintry branch design as a sop to Christmas traditionalists. The takeaway: The company could spangle its cups with nativity scenes or gingerbread satanic symbols—even both—and some swath of customers would feel alienated and empowered by social media to make that sentiment public.
It’s a branding truism that a company can’t be everything to everybody. But whether and how to acknowledge the holidays is a particularly fraught topic, especially for a company born in progressive Seattle but a fixture everywhere from Thailand to Tampa. Mathew Isaac, an associate professor at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics, actually thinks our hometown coffee giant walks that line with considerable deftness. “It’s not that they’ve wiped Christmas from their stores,” he says. The company has sold its Christmas Blend of beans for 30 years. But it’s 2016, says Isaac, and companies with Starbucks’ reach “need to be politically correct and recognize that not everyone has the same traditions related to religious holidays.”
Schultz wouldn’t stand in front of shareholders and make light of the red cup drama if he was worried it was truly an insensitive misstep. It’s not that all PR is good PR, says Isaac. “But when people are willing to trade insults on social media, that tells you how strongly people feel about this brand. That’s something you can’t really buy.”
But you can quantify it. Schultz told the audience that holiday cup outrage gave the company eight billion social media impressions, an impact that calls to mind the woe and hostility that erupted when Coca-Cola released New Coke in 1985, or when the Gap tried to change its logo in 2010, only to unchange it a week later, after customers declared it junky and not as classy as the original.
That’s the paradox of Starbucks: University of Washington marketing professor Shailendra P. Jain points to a host of the company’s attributes—consistency, customer service, visibility, even sourcing raw materials in socially responsible ways—that together create feelings so positive, customers identify with this multinational corporation in a deeply personal way. “If Starbucks does something that deviates from their sense of identity, they get triggered.”
One of the traits Starbucks cultivates most assiduously, says Jain, is a feeling of community. “We don’t go to Starbucks to have coffee; we go there to commune. We go there literally to have fellowship.” His observation touches on the point that everyone who partook in the red cup tweetstorm seems to overlook: Whether you find this to be uplifting or deeply horrifying, the act of ordering coffee at Starbucks—which happens at 24,000 stores in 70 countries—might soon unite humankind more than any belief system or religious imagery. Maybe the cup is as much a symbol as the stuff Starbucks stripped off it.